Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What sort of future for the Church of England?

One of the things that I talk about in my LUBH talks is exponential growth, ie what it actually means when something grows consistently at a certain percentage per year. In sum, consistent annual growth (eg 7.5%) means that the entity doubles in size in a particular time frame (10 years for 7.5%), when that continues then stupendous consequences follow, eg fold a piece of paper 40 times and it will touch the moon!

The same principles apply in reverse of course, which brings me to the future of the Church of England:

What this means is that, unless something dramatic changes, the Church of England will have around 80,000 members at the end of this century. I think that there are all sorts of reasons for this decline (not least George Herbert syndrome) and here I just want to draw attention to it as the context for some other things happening at the moment. (I should say that there is a very large difference between 'the Church' and 'the Church of England' - I have immense confidence in the long-term future of the former, whereas I am quite pragmatically pessimistic about the long-term future of the latter.)

Now we can all point to pockets of growth and new life that spring up here and there - there are several in this patch - and we can come up with all sorts of wonderful reasons why the Church of England is a lovely institution that deserves to continue... but I suspect that, in anything like its present form, the CofE is in the process of dying, in an oh-so-genteel way. The inertia of establishment will prop it up for quite some time before it properly enters its rest however.

Two other factors to bring in: first, all the faction-fighting, especially over women and homosexuality. It does look as if TEC is prepared to go its own way, and this will have implications for how the CofE carries on. I can't see the split being exclusively outside England and, as I've said before if it is the ultra-conservative biblicists that split away (as in previous centuries) then the CofE will be able to muddle along for a bit longer; if, however, it is the (much larger) progressive side that ends up splitting away - leaving the biblicists in a much stronger position - then I suspect the decline will be much swifter.

Will anyone care, or even notice? I'm sure most people in the congregation don't - they'll keep turning up and worshipping and supporting the wider life for as long as they can. However, there is the second factor to consider - which is the increasingly straitened financial circumstances that we find ourselves in. The Church is having to shed jobs continuously, and more and more stipendiary posts are vanishing, to be more-or-less replaced by non-stipendiaries and lay workers. This is all well and good - and, I believe, part of God's secret plan to renew his people in this country - but it has the inevitable side-effect of accelerating the financial crisis. As Bob Jackson has pointed out in his research, the most effective way to precipitate a decline in membership and giving is to not have an incumbent in post.

In this situation I see two main alternatives: the first is a 'managed decline', where at each point anyone in authority can say, looking locally, 'we're doing alright, it's not so bad, we've slowed the decline - or even stabilised our numbers! etc etc'. This is the apocryphal boiled-frog option in reverse - we haven't been boiled alive yet!!

The second is that we bet the house on a different way of doing things (after all, if we lose the bet, we have simply embraced the expected future consciously rather than backing into it out of fear and denial) - and it could work. What do I mean by this? I mean things like:
- setting the parishes free of the parish share system, with each parish paying for it's own minister and housing etc (to the charge 'what about the poor areas?' I respond 'what about the actions that free and faithful Christians will take?!');
- passing ownership - and therefore the cost of upkeep - of most church buildings to the state, to be cared for as part of our national heritage;
- abandoning establishment, eg Bishops in the House of Lords, which has all sorts of pernicious consequences, one example being the canon law requiring priests to baptise any children whose parents request it;
- abandoning the parish system and reverting to the minster model for church organisation - in effect we become the Anglican church in England, just one denomination, not the Church OF England - so it would be much more like the situation in North America.

I think we need to set ourselves free, to shed the skin of establishment that has become constraining, suffocating and distancing from our environment. I believe it is what God wants - and all the travails we are presently suffering are the ways in which God is trying to get us to change our patterns of life. Bring home the revolution!

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